Wednesday, June 10, 2009
A timely tale of palace intrigue -- and why we're insulted by this photo
There he is, the Community Organizer, in an official White House photo, sitting with his feet on the desk, soles of his shoes showing, talking on the telephone, we’re told, to our Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu.
“Some Israelis” the CBS story reports, “are insulted.”
“Israelis see the incident as somewhat akin to an incident last year, when the Iraqi reporter threw a shoe at President Bush in Baghdad.”
Wrong again, CBS. Yes, we’re insulted. But not for that reason. Not even close.
Israelis – make that Jews – are insulted for historical and cultural reasons of our own. It has nothing to do with George Bush or dissatisfied Iraqis, nor is it a simple bleed-over from our Arab neighbors, who are indeed seriously insulted by anyone who shows the sole of their shoe.
The truth is, that photo is an unpleasant reminder of another leader who was intent on destroying the Jewish nation – and almost succeeded.
It’s a famous story – maybe you’re familiar with it. It’s the story of Purim, as recorded in the Book of Esther.
Read it yourself -- or here’s the nutshell version:
It started when King Achashverosh of Persia, which is present-day Iran, a story element that makes this tale all the more juicy. Achashverosh is also known by the Greek version of his name, Xerxes. He ruled Persia from 486 – 465 BCE.
King Achashverosh, like so many other rulers through the eons, was intent on finally ridding the world of the pesky Jews. He’d been relying on prophecies which said that by the end of 70 years, the Jews of his time would end their exile and return home to Jerusalem. So cagy Achashverosh simply bided his time, waiting out the 70 years, which, by his calculations, would end three years into his reign.
If the Jews didn’t return by that time, he reasoned, he could relax. The prophets would be proven wrong, and the Jews would finally disappear. To that end, he ordered all work on the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem stopped.
Time passed, and by Achashverosh’ reckoning, the 70 years were over. Nothing had happened, so he decided to throw a great feast to celebrate his victory. He set his banquet tables with sacred vessels from the Temple, and specifically invited Jews to his feast. If he could induce them to eat and drink the non-kosher food and wine he’d serve, then he could count his victory as complete.
The leader of the Jewish people at that time was a man named Mordechai, who was either Esther’s cousin, uncle, foster father or even, some say, her husband. In any event, Esther had been orphaned, and the powerful Mordechai stood as her protector. Esther – Hadassah, in Hebrew – was incredibly beautiful. Day by day, Mordechai worried that one day his lovely Jewish protégé would be called to the Palace to serve the lusty and evil Achashverosh.
When the invitations went out to this marvelous feast – which would last a half-year – Mordechai, as leader of the Jews, warned all the Jews not to go. He knew what Achashverosh’ scheme was. Indeed, most of the Jews declined the invitation, but some went – Jews will be Jews, after all.
I personally picture Rahm Emanuel at this feast, sitting at Achashverosh’ table, tipping his half-gallon wine glass into his mouth, enjoying himself hugely.
In any event, Achashverosh bent his elbow at this feast too. The adult beverages loosened his tongue, and soon he was bragging about his wealth. Then he moved on to crow about the beauty of his then-wife, Vasti the Queen. Seeking to impress his guests, he ordered Vasti to appear and dance naked before the crowd – as I say, in politics, some things never change.
Vasti refused. "Am I to be sent for like a common slave, a mere servant girl?" she said. It wasn’t virtue that made the evil Vasti was refuse, however. Instead, it was because she was the granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar, and tended to regard such orders from her husband as beneath her dignity.
Unfortunately for her, Queens don’t get the privilege of refusing orders from the King. So Achashverosh had Vasti, his wife, executed. Which left Achashverosh without a Queen.
The contest to replace Vasti began. Beautiful young women from all the 127 provinces of the kingdom were sought out and brought to the palace to compete. Hundreds wanted the position, of course – Queen of Persia was a gig on the level of Miss Universe, even if the Queenly lifespan tended to be a bit shorter.
When the lovely young things arrived at the palace, they all requested – and received – costly beauty treatments and lavish wardrobes so they’d look their best in enticing the King.
All except for Esther. She didn’t ask for anything.
Esther, who had no need for bling, was sweet and kind and radiated modesty and goodness. Of course, because she was an orphan, no one knew she was Jewish, which she managed to keep hidden.
As you probably can guess from stories like this, in due time, Esther was chosen and became Achashverosh’ Queen, which was a really good deal for Mordechai and the Jews. As Queen, Esther was in the perfect position to hear all the palace gossip, so she could protect her people to some degree. She even managed to have her uncle/foster father/whatever, Mordechai, appointed as Jewish Advisor to the King.
How did she do that? She reminded the King that all the other great rulers had selected Jewish advisors, so why hadn’t he have one? And there was Mordechai – wise, pious and loyal. Why not him? So Mordechai became part of the Royal Court.
Still wondering about the shoe? Hang on, we’re getting close.
One day, Mordechai overheard a conversation: two of the King's attendants, Bigtan and Teresh, were plotting to poison the King. Naturally, Mordechai told the King about it, the poison was discovered and the King’s life was saved. Mordechai’s status rose ever further.
All in all, Mordechai and Esther were faring very well indeed – except that Mordechai sensed that trouble was looming. Big trouble. So he became watchful.
The fly in the ointment was a man named Haman, a direct descendent of Amalek, who’s also – just in case you’re wondering – the ancestor of the Arabs who today still plague Jews.
Haman was a wealthy man, and because of his wealth – you see how little things have changed – King Achashverosh appointed Haman to the position of Prime Minister. Worse than that, after Haman was appointed, the King issued an order commanding everyone in the palace to bow down to Haman.
That’s where the trouble really started, that inane requirement to bow. Why? Because on his chest, Haman wore an image of the idol he worshiped. Which meant that Mordechai, the observant Jew, refused to bow to him. “I am a Jew,” Mordechai said, “I would never bow down to any human being wearing the image of a pagan idol on his chest.” (You see how we get this reputation for being a stiff-necked people.)
Haman was, of course, enraged. It wasn’t just that Mordechai refused to bow, either, it’s that these two men – Haman and Mordechai – had some history. This wasn’t the first time they’d clashed.
The animosity between them started several years earlier. Haman had been the lawyer, if you well, for a group of people who had tried to stop the rebuilding of the Temple. Mordechai, for his part, was representing the Jews. They were both going to Persia to argue their cases, and happened to leave on the journey on the same day.
Knowing they had to pass through a vast desert to reach Persia, where neither food nor water could be found, both packed provisions for the journey. But Haman, who lacked self control, ate all of his food at once, while Mordechai, the prudent little bunny, saved most of his. Within a very short time, Haman became very hungry and begged Mordechai to give him part of his food. He was starving, he said. He was dying.
At first Mordechai refused. Then he relented, on one condition: that Haman would agree to become Mordechai’s slave.
The starving Haman agreed. But because they were out there in the desert, they had no paper to record their contract. They wrote on the next best thing they had, the sole of Mordechai’s shoe.
AH – you see? We’re getting there!
On the sole of Mordechai’s shoe, Haman wrote: "I, Haman the Agagite, have sold myself to Mordechai as his slave in consideration of bread."
There you have it, a perfectly legal contract. But the real truth was, Mordechai had no particular need or desire to have a slave, Haman or anyone else. So he never intended to enforce the agreement. But Haman didn’t know that. Every day of his life, he remembered that once he had been starving, and that he’d had to beg his most bitter enemy to save his life. He could never get over his humiliation.
So when Haman, as Prime Minister, demanded that Mordechai bow down to him – well, you see the issue. Having Mordechai bow down was more important than having anyone else bow. Haman needed to assure himself that he had finally, totally, prevailed over Mordechai.
And Mordechai wasn’t beyond tweaking the situation, either. He not only refused to bow, but every time he could, he picked up his shoe and waved it at Haman – a silent reminder of the agreement.
Obviously there’s enough material here to keep a gaggle of psychologists busy for generations. But whenever Haman saw Mordechai standing there at the gate, waving his shoe -- reminding him of the time when he was hungry and vulnerable – he went nuts.
Finally, Haman reached the point where he couldn’t take it anymore. He set out to destroy not just Mordechai, but the entire Jewish nation.
There – that’s how the story of the sole of the shoe fits into the Jewish psyche as a symbol of humiliation and destruction.
Read the rest of the tale yourself – Haman didn’t succeed, of course. Instead, thanks to the brave and pious Esther, the Jewish nation was saved and Haman ended up being hanged on the gallows he’d built for Mordechai.
A timely story, actually, because Queen Esther really did save the Jewish nation from destruction – at that time, King Achashverosh and his evil henchman Haman had control of all the Jews in the world. If their plan had succeeded, the world would have been rid of Jews long before Hitler set out to do the same thing.
Which means that today’s ruler of Persia, the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wouldn’t have had any Jews to worry about. Nor would Abu Mazen, or any of the others who are still trying to do the same thing.
So today, when people in the Middle East start showing the soles of their shoes to each other, it awakens all kinds of not-all-that-latent cultural markers. We Jews remember Haman, who tried his best, in ways too devious and evil to recount here, to destroy us – and almost succeeded.
We don’t look kindly on people who show us the soles of their shoes – and that includes, needless to say, the Community Organizer. We know he hates us, that his goal is to help his fellow Muslims and destroy the State of Israel.
And Hussein Obama, for his part, is astonished at our chutzpah – we’re refusing to bow down to his dictates to stop construction in Judea and Samaria! So he’s bent on our destruction, just as throughout history, so many other world leaders have been.
Are you going to suggest that the Community Organizer most likely didn’t know the story of Mordechai and Esther, and how the sole of Mordechai’s shoe came to be a symbol of humiliation and destruction? That’s probably true.
But what he does know is that for all his Muslim friends – all 22 existing Arab nations, plus all the Muslims in America (“The largest Muslim country in the world,” he tells us) -- to show the sole of your shoe is a gut-level symbol of disrespect, comparable to the middle-finger salute.
So when Hussein Obama ordered the White House Press Office to take a picture of him -- shoes up, soles showing – as he talked to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the telephone, he knew exactly what he was doing. He was flipping off the Jews and sending a symbol of solidarity to his Muslim allies around the world.
So yes, we in Israel take offense. That photo tells us exactly what the President of the United States intends.
It tells us that Hussein Obama is no different from Haman.
Haman, as I said, was hanged by King Achashverosh. I repeat: I wonder what will become of Hussein Obama?